Tribute to A.C. Greene
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JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, a farewell, to A.C. Greene, the Texas writer, mentor, and friend who contributed essays to this program for several years. He died today in Salado, Texas, of brain cancer at age 78. Here’s part of an essay he did for us in 1986 to mark the Fourth of July.
A.C. GREENE: One summer evening in the middle of War World II, I found myself wandering the streets of Philadelphia, a little lost and more than a little lonesome. I had arrived in town only a few days before, a sailor from Texas who had never been any farther east than Chicago.
It was my first liberty in the city of brotherly love. I left the Naval station alone without a plan or a phone number to my name, and rode the broad street subway to Center Square where city hall towered over downtown with William Penn at its tip-top, hand outstretched blessing his city. Emerging at dusk, I walked down Market Street feeling even more lonesome, the least important sailor in the U.S. Navy. Turning into a side street and walking a few more blocks, I realized I had no idea where I was. The sidewalks were empty.
I stopped and looked around, glancing at the doorway of the red brick building where I had halted. A plaque was mounted there and the words brought me to tears as I read them: “The Birthplace of the United States of America.”
Looking up following the lines of the familiar spire, I recognized that this was Independence Hall where the Declaration of Independence was signed July 4, 1776. It happened here, that diverse group of heroes gathered on this very spot to make that final, awesome decision.
Cautiously I put my foot in the Fourth of July. Suddenly the bold sentences thundered through me with new and immediate power. “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.” These men who put their names to that declaration put their lives on the line– the firing line or the lines to the gallows. If the colonies lost the Revolution, there was no place for them to hide, no shelter from the wrath of King George, no Bill of Rights to call on for protection. Their names were on this treasonable paper. There was no denial. They were not just signing a petition. They were demanding the noose.
And yet there was surely an even stronger fear lurking: Would it work? Even if the battles and political struggles were successful, what terrible creature might they be loosing on mankind? What price independence at a time in history when it had never before been defined? Even the taste for human freedom was uncertain.
They were writing the original recipe, that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. And there I was, that darkening evening in Philadelphia, waiting to be sent into a war which, in a sense, was being fought because of what they did here on that long before July 4, a war from which I had no assurance of returning, a war that would cost me years of time and the death of friends, and take me where I, like millions of others would ask, “What am I doing here?” But where might I have been had they hesitated, had they had divided and lacked resolve? With all the flaws and failings of the creature they created, where would the world be? Would I have chosen otherwise?
Of course not. No, all these thoughts didn’t find me that one night. Over the years, I have believed, then changed my mind, have taken stands, then deserted them, have raged and wondered and prayed. But no matter what I’ve discovered about my country or myself, I’ve not forgot that evening more than 40 years ago when I put my foot in the Fourth of July.